May We Be Forgiven, By A M Holmes

A piercing, perceptive, deeply funny novel about love, life and Nixon that's so crammed with incident it shouldn't hang together, but it does

Doug Johnstone
Saturday 20 October 2012 19:19 BST

Almost exactly three-quarters of the way through this wonderful, wild, heartbreaking, hilarious and astonishing novel, A M Homes gives us this paragraph: "And then – the real craziness starts. Later, I will wonder if this part really happened or if I dreamed it."

Given the huge amount of craziness in the 355 pages that precedes that paragraph, this really sets the reader up for a humdinger of a finale, one that Homes delivers with aplomb.

Rewind to the start. The opening 25 pages of May We Be Forgiven are remarkable, like being sucker punched by real life repeatedly until you can't take any more, only to have to take much, much more. Again and again. It is brutal, but also strangely thrilling.

The focus for the book is Harry, an underachieving historian and academic, a Nixon specialist in an era when no one gives a rat's ass about Nixon. Despite being married, he is attracted to his brother George's wife Jane. George is involved in a car accident in which he kills a married couple, orphaning the car's other passenger, a young boy called Ricardo.

There then follows in the next few pages several mental breakdowns, adultery, murder, incarceration, redundancy and a stroke. I won't spoil things by telling you who does what, but the rest of the book is all about the repercussions of this cataclysmic chain of events, as Harry tries to piece his life back together in the wake of almost unimaginable stress.

Things don't start well. Alone in George and Jane's house, Harry begins a string of highly dangerous and highly nasty sexual liaisons with women he's picked up over the internet. There is a level of self-destruction in these encounters that speaks volumes for Harry's state of mind, and for long stretches there seems very little chance of him ever getting back on to an even keel.

If that sounds downbeat and depressing, it's far from it. Homes is a very, very funny writer, brilliant at pinpointing the ridiculous nature of 21st-century living, and May We Be Forgiven has something of the feel of Catch-22 or The World According to Garp. Homes is a more engaging and empathetic writer than either Joseph Heller or John Irving, though, and she is immensely readable – I raced through these 480 pages faster than anything else I've read this year.

And so from Harry's lowest point, against all the odds, we get a long and slow journey back to redemption. The beginning of this process is through his relationship with George and Jane's children. Nate is 12 and Ashley is 11, and the pair of them have been away at private boarding schools while the catastrophic events took place, and now, with their parents out of the picture for different reasons, Harry is left as the only parental figure they have.

Once they know about their father's initial crash, they persuade Harry to offer assistance to Ricardo, and the four of them together gradually become like a dysfunctional family magnet, attracting different waifs and strays, both human and animal, into the fold.

As a historian, Harry might appreciate the old adage that "history is just one damned thing after another", as the same can be said of his own life. Thrown into the crazy mix at various points are an FBI sting on Israeli arms dealers in an experimental open prison, the discovery of a box of short stories written by Richard Nixon, a highly inappropriate lesbian child abuse situation, two appearances by Don DeLillo in a shopping mall and the ghost of John Cheever, cellular memory of a murder by a heart transplant recipient, and a life-affirming bar mitzvah in a remote South African village called "Nateville", which has the best phone signal in the country after a satellite fell to Earth nearby.

None of this should make sense, and it certainly shouldn't hang together as a novel, but Homes practises some kind of weird alchemy to make it seem like the perfect commentary on the death of the American dream.

The Nixon stuff helps in this regard, threading that idea together through the pages, as Harry's research into and obsession with the deeply flawed president comes to represent something altogether bigger. Homes makes a convincing case that all Americans' lives are lived in the dark shadows of those in highest office.

This is a piercing, perceptive and deeply funny novel about the nature of life, and about finding your family wherever you can, wherever you get comfort and something approaching love.

Towards the end, Ashley becomes upset at a Jewish ceremony of atonement and has this interaction with Harry:

"She starts to cry. 'It's just so terrible,' she says.

'Which part?' I ask.

'Being human.'"

In A M Homes's hands, it's not so terrible after all.

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